It seems like a no-brainer. A rural area like ours, with much of it designated as “forever wild” or subject to regional development controls, has to be better off than other rural areas in the northern United States. Protected to the extent that it is, the Park’s environment provides the basis for the Park’s economy and is the best hope for its future.
Yet ever since the Adirondack Park Agency was established in 1971, this state agency has been blamed by local officials and real-estate interests for hurting our economy and forcing residents out of the Park. The Adirondack Forest Preserve has also been a handy scapegoat for most of our problems. The Preserve, which constitutes nearly half of the six-million-acre Park, is faulted for “locking up” this wild land and preventing it from being developed for housing and commercial use.
Last year a “regional assessment” of the Adirondacks, commissioned by local governments, documented the problems of the region, including unemployment, poverty, the decline in school enrollment, and the aging of our population. It’s clear that the Park is experiencing the same difficulties that afflict rural areas elsewhere. Predictably, opponents of the APA and public-land ownership have seized on the assessment as evidence that the Park is over-protected and over-regulated, to the detriment of our economy and way of life.
The problem with this argument is that it’s upside-down. Our public lands are not a liability. They are the region’s greatest economic asset—the magnet that attracts visitors and residents to the Park. The Adirondack Park Agency has not impeded development, as critics charge; the agency’s land-use controls have helped to safeguard the Park while allowing development to proceed full tilt. Until the national economic collapse in 2008, an average of eight hundred new homes were constructed every year since the advent of the APA. There are now at least half again as many houses in the Park as in 1971. Over the past four decades, real-estate development has become a major Adirondack industry.
In fact, if there’s a legitimate complaint about the APA, it’s that this tiny, underfunded agency is not adequately protecting the Park from damaging human activity. During the last forty years, many of the Park’s private shorelines have been crammed with houses and septic tanks, and water quality has suffered accordingly. The latest threat to the Park’s integrity comes from upland development, as mountainsides and ridges are being marred with new “view homes” that the APA lacks the authority (or will) to control.
The validity of blaming the Park for our economic and social problems has been challenged in a comparative study done for the nonprofit group, Protect the Adirondacks. Following up on last year’s regional assessment, two researchers, Kenneth Strike and Lorraine Duvall, found that the Adirondack Park is generally doing better than other remote northern areas. They matched the Adirondack counties of Essex and Hamilton, and the town of Webb, which includes Old Forge, against similar areas in Minnesota, Maine, and Montana. They also compared the Adirondacks with three other rural counties in this state and with the towns of Boonville, Lowville, and Malone just outside the Park’s boundary. None of these places is subject to the kind of protections—the regional controls and forever-wild public lands—for which the ills of the Adirondacks are falsely blamed.
Among their findings:
• We have a higher median household income than comparable areas.
• We have a lower poverty and unemployment rate.
• We are gaining older workers (45-65) and losing younger workers (25-45) along with their children. Growth of the 65-plus population is modest.
• The chief challenge facing Adirondack communities is how to attract entrepreneurs who can capitalize on our natural environment and young people who will stay and start families.
“Most of the people we want to attract will want to live here because they value the unparalleled natural beauty and recreational activities or because they like living in small communities,” the study found. But it notes that other amenities are also needed, such as “good restaurants, a social life, gyms, and an occasional concert within a reasonable drive.”
A tour of the Park reveals that cultural amenities are indeed cropping up in this land of lakes, forests and mountains. Consider the popular new gym in Keene Valley, the impressive new arts center in Old Forge, the newly instituted Metropolitan Opera performances at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts (thanks to HD simulcast), the proliferation of art galleries in Saranac Lake, the old, abandoned movie theater recently transformed into a center for performing arts in Indian Lake, and, of course, the Wild Center, our new museum of Adirondack natural history in Tupper Lake.
What other rural areas can offer as much, while protecting a unique natural heritage? What better place for telecommuters seeking peace and quiet, good schools and friendly communities, in a superb setting? What better environment for creating and expanding businesses built around hiking, paddling, cycling, climbing, snowshoeing, skiing, birding, and simply enjoying the best of what’s left of our natural world?
As John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council recently wrote in the Albany Times Union:
“Local officials in the Adirondack Park should stop blaming the Adirondack Park Agency and state land acquisition for wrecking the Adirondack economy. The economy isn’t wrecked. It is one of the most robust rural areas in the northeastern United States. Being a park is helping, not harming, the Adirondacks.”
Dick Beamish, Chairman
You can find the Strike/Duvall report at protectadirondacks.org and the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment at aatvny.org